What happens when a state sponsor of terrorism, Iran, announces high-tech collaboration with Cuba, a recently and likely erroneously de-listed state sponsor of terrorism? It’s a loaded question. You know the answer. Nothing good!
According to the Iran’s Mehr news agency, Iran and Cuba plan closer collaboration on nanotechnology that includes building a new lab in Havana. While nanotechnology applications are revolutionizing many sectors including life sciences, healthcare, and industrial production, among others, it would be reckless to allow Cuba and Iran, without verifiable safeguards, to research, mass produce and export nano materials from Havana, or anywhere else in the world.
Iranian regime leaders cannot be taken at their word that Iran intends only peaceful nanotechnology applications. In fact some governments have expressed concerns. For example, in May 2009, the United Kingdom blacklisted the Iran National Nanotechnology Council as an entity of potential concern for WMD-related procurement. Why would the UK do this? I suspect because miniaturization is one of the most challenging but necessary aspects for building a nuclear bomb. In fact according to scientists, nanotech could lead to smaller and more compact nuclear weapons. By the way, Cuba has scores of very bored former nuclear scientists trained by the Russians to help build Cuba’s nuclear program during the 1980s. Will they be recruited by Cuba to collaborate in this new venture?
The Foresight Institute, a leading nanotechnology think tank non-profit based in Menlo Park, California states in a suggested guidelines for compliance that “a determined and sophisticated group of terrorists or “non state entities” could potentially, with considerable difficulty, specifically engineer systems to become autonomous replicators able to proliferate in the natural environment, either as a nuisance, a specifically targeted weapon, or in the worst case, a weapon of mass destruction.” The Iran/Cuba combination has the scientific knowhow and economic means to make this so. Besides nuclear proliferation concerns, nanotechnology has many other potential military or dual-use applications such as adding nanotechnology to make bombs more lethal (think suicide vests), armor, micro computers, robots, and even UAVs. Of course there are chemical and biological applications.
For the United States and other nations that impose economic sanctions on Iran and Cuba, policing these new relationships is essential for two reasons. The first one is money and the enforcement of sanctions against the Iranian regime. Taking Iran at their word, always a risky proposition, Iran allegedly generates more than $1.2 billion dollars a year in nanotechnology exports. That is enough money to fund Iranian adventurism in Syria for a year. It can also fund a lot of terror operations around the world. If you want to better understand who is pocketing this money and what they are doing with it, I highly recommend Reuter’s series “Assets of the Ayatollah: The economic empire behind Iran’s Supreme Leader.”
The other concern involves U.S. national security and defense issues. While nanotechnology has many non-lethal applications, can the free world trust Iran, or for that matter Cuba, to use it responsibly? Maybe some day, however that day is not now. The cozy relationship between these two terrorist states, sworn enemies of the United States, raise a series of red flags on issues ranging from money laundering, terrorist support and financing, and now, advanced scientific research and production in the field nanotechnology. The transformative power of nanotechnology, and its potential defense and dual-use applications warrant close scrutiny, especially when countries such as Cuba and Iran are involved. For Cuba, nanotechnology collaboration with Iran could help U.S. policymakers justify, along with other factors, putting Cuba back on the U.S. state sponsors of terrorism list.